Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Rise: '15-'16 Season Preview

With loads of young talent and a rotation that makes sense, this is a proving ground year for most of these players. Jennings and Smith are undertaking reclamation projects. For Smith, he wants to prove that he can both help lead a young team (something he was accused of being unable to do in Atlanta) as well as recover from the worst season of his career. Jennings may finally be able to come through on his promise of becoming a more complete, effective player in Detroit; he finally has the teammates and will now have the scheme. Monroe wants a big contract. KCP wants a career. Meeks and Augustin want to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. This is a blue collar team the way that Dumars imagined, but not for the reasons he hoped.
Few teams in the NBA played below their talent level last season as significantly as the Pistons. Last year's preview here was titled Reclamation, fitting nomenclature but for the wrong reasons. Following the disastrous 5-23 start, the Pistons unceremoniously cut the highest-paid player on their team and began the work of reclaiming their already-lost season. They immediately went on a seven-game win streak and, despite a 10-game losing streak in the final 54 games of the season, closed the year 27-27 following Josh Smith's departure. The Pistons had won just enough games to lose a top-five draft pick and looked to most like a team stuck in the endless cycle of sub-mediocrity where mid-lottery teams fester.

Stan Van Gundy has since drawn comparisons to the other coach/GM in the league: Doc Rivers and his disastrous handling of the Clippers roster. Before the '14-'15 season SVG let Greg Monroe, a problematic albeit talented young player, sign the qualify offer, and watched as he entered free agency unrestricted and unwilling to return to Detroit. In the offseason, Reggie Jackson's contract was widely criticized. The acquisitions of Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris were seen as minor blips on the radar. And one of the stories of the draft was how lucky the Miami Heat were that Justise Winslow dropped to them in the draft, an obvious slight at SVG for drafting Stanley Johnson with the 8th pick.

You could be forgiven for believing most pre-season projections that had the Pistons well outside of the playoffs. But this is not the same Pistons team that you saw last year, or the last six devastating lottery years for that matter.
One of the more interesting storylines of the offseason was the cognitive dissonance that most NBA writers displayed when discussing the Pistons, specifically with regards to Reggie Jackson. It usually went something like this: Reggie Jackson was wonderful in his 27 games with the Pistons, reaching career highs in points, assists, and free throw attempts per 36 minutes, but you just can't rely on Reggie Jackson. Had Jackson achieved these numbers while filling in for Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, you could make the argument that they are an aberration. But it's harder to make that argument about a fourth-year player joining his second team and his first with a real coach and offensive system. Jackson hasn't proven to be a superstar but he has shown to be more than he was in Oklahoma City.

But as has been true since SVG arrived in Detroit, the team lives and dies by Andre Drummond, who disappointed in his third season with the Pistons. The notable jump in production from his rookie to sophomore campaigns pointed toward a star on the rise, but when his production stagnated from year two to year three, questions arose around Drummond. Is he just a less effective DeAndre Jordan? Will he ever develop an offensive game? Can he defend anyone one-on-one? Drummond enters this season poised to sign a huge contract regardless of the outcome. To bring adequate value on that contract, however, Drummond needs to improve in almost all facets of his game. His offensive production is less critical that developing into a lock-down post defender and rim protector, both things the Pistons desperately need. After the season opener, it's clear that his offensive post moves still lack even basic functionality, but being a rebounding terror should suffice with the bevy of outside shooters that the Pistons employ.

Last season's biggest weakness (wing depth) is trending toward a strength. With the acquisition of Morris, the Pistons gained a versatile small forward that can play multiple positions. Morris will revive the role of Hedo Turkoglu on the '08-'09 Magic, an oversized but mobile small forward capable of hitting outside shots and defending most positions on the floor. The most dramatic change in the Pistons' season opener from last year's team was the speed and aggression of the defense. Without Greg Monroe on the floor, incapable of guarding stretch power forwards, the Pistons defense switches frequently, fights over screens on the perimeter, and recovers to shooters. Where once Kyle Singler and Monroe attempted to fill holes in this defense, the Pistons have downsized to Morris and Ilyasova, who zip around the court and take turns defending opposing bigs on the block.

And then there's the Pistons' duo of athletic wings Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson, the former in a make-or-break season, the latter listed as one of the favorites to win rookie of the year honors. In KCP, the Pistons continue to get a voracious defender and transition threat. His development in finishing, ball handling, and shooting have been a long time coming and still a ways off. But if he can become a reliable outside threat, the other issues will be less impactful. Short of hitting ~40% from outside, however, KCP's value as an NBA starter will almost entirely evaporate. Johnson, meanwhile, comes into the NBA more physically ready than most other rookies in recent memory. What he lacks in height, he makes up for in non-stop effort and an ability to play larger than his frame. The team's ability to play anywhere from one to three of their dynamic wings allows them to handle any matchup that the league can throw their way.

If one weakness presented itself in the season opener, it was the bench unit, one that has played scant minutes together and is missing a critical piece in Brandon Jennings. Steve Blake, Aron Baynes, and Jodie Meeks on the floor together struggle to produce any consistent offense. To compound issues, the perimeter reserves are uniformly terrible defenders, as evidenced by the parade of Atlanta guards attacking the basket unmolested last night. But when Jennings returns, the bench production receives an offensive boost, while SVG can mitigate the defensive issues with substitution patterns that don't see the entire bench unit playing together.

The Pistons do not project to be contenders this season. But they'll be closer to contender than the '14-'15 trainwreck. Outside of Detroit, not a lot of people have watched the Pistons over the last three years. Seeing what appear to be off-base GM moves and the lack of a big-name acquisition have caused most to write off the Pistons this season and proclaim the SVG coach/GM experiment to be a flop. But Stan Van Gundy's Pistons have only played one real game together. Last season saw a disastrously constructed roster perform disastrously. In 10 months, the Pistons shed a program cancer (Smith), an awkward roster fit (Monroe), and turned spare parts (Singler, DJ Augustin) into the coach's preferred point guard. They drafted an NBA-ready wing, signed a stretch power forward, and have continued to develop their young core. When Jennings returns from injury, this team will finally feel like the team SVG has been envisioning.

Forty-five wins is not out of reach for this team. Neither is 38 wins. Without the depth to be a contender this season, those numbers are inconsequential. What the Pistons need to show this year is development and improvement, however that manifests itself, be it via win total, personal statistics, or just passing the eye test. If Stan Van Gundy hasn't earned your trust yet, he will by the season's end. With a system that dovetails the prevailing trends in the NBA, the Pistons' offense should skyrocket up statistical measures, while the construction of the roster will enable sub-par individual defenders to coalesce into a speedy, competent defense that can handle the changing NBA landscape.

Go Pistons.

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